How the ‘My Little Pony’ Reboot Fights Racism With Gobs of Glitter
Friendship is magic, and subtlety is overrated.
Netflix’s My Little Pony: A New Generation starts off with some familiar faces frolicking in the glittery land of Equestria: Southern-drawled pony Applejack, rainbow-tailed pegasus Rainbow Dash, and diamond-studded unicorn Rarity are primed for an adventure in all their two-dimensional glory. Almost immediately, though, the so-called Guardians of Friendship begin infighting as Rarity declares a hunger for pony flesh and declares, “I’m a unicorn and we’re eeeeeevil.”
The film then smash-cuts to a three-dimensional new pony, Sunny (voiced by Vanessa Hudgens) looking frustrated in a playroom. “The ponies are all supposed to get along,” she tells her pals as they play with action figures, only for another to assert, “My mom says pegasi and unicorns try to eat up all the unicorns by zapping them with laser and frying them to a crisp… if they ever try to come back, we’ll kick their butts again.”
“That is kind of what our teacher said in history class,” another concurs.
For anyone who’s observed the specter of a parent’s bigotry recycled through the mouth of a child during playtime, the sequence should strike a raw nerve. It’s probably the most relatably subtle thing in this soft-hearted reboot of the enduring franchise. It announces its intent to combat bigotry and segregation from the get-go, then proceeds to trumpet its themes across nearly 90 minutes of sparkly adventure, farmhouse puns, and pop songs.
And honestly, the lack of subtlety is probably a good thing. Children’s entertainment is full of cultural allegory that tends to fly right over young audiences’ heads. Ask an adult what Zootopia is about and they’ll praise the film’s approach to dismantling systemic racism. Ask your average 7-year-old and they’ll tell you it’s about a bunny and fox who save the city from scary animals. Very young audiences don’t exactly need a modern version of Animal Farm or Watership Down. For kids, the subtext is overrated.
My Little Pony has never hidden its messaging about the magic of friendship and unity, and given its target audience, themes like “being nice is good” and “being mean is bad” are enough. A New Generation seldom pushes its agenda too far past that universal message, but it does get specific. In this update, blue-collar Earth ponies (that is, plain old anthropomorphic horses), rustic unicorns, and elitist pegasi have all lost their magic and segregated themselves to their own parts of Equestria. The central villain is an industrialist Earth pony preying on institutionalized fears by selling anti-unicorn and pegasus defense gizmos to a homogenous city whose citizens have never laid eyes on a different breed of pony.
When unicorn Izzy — voiced chipperly by Kimiko Glenn — shows up in the Earth Pony town of Maretime Bay, all hell breaks loose. That leads Sunny — whose late father (Michael McKean) was something of a pony-rights scholar — and new pal Izzy on a quest for a magical crystal that takes them to the Greek mythology-inspired land of the pegasi in a quest to unite ponydom.
Along the way, the heroes confront their own latent, learned prejudices (unicorns are violent hicks, Earth ponies are smelly and lazy, pegasi are power-hungry zionists… sound familiar?). Meanwhile, the Earth ponies fall under the nationalist spell of a power-hungry sheriff’s deputy (Ken Jeong), who shifts from bully to fascist over the course of a musical number called “Angry Mob,” transforming the townsponies from complacently ignorant to goose-stepping drones. It makes The Lion King’s “Be Prepared” seem like a paragon of subtext.
Again, this is not a subtle movie. But neither is it a brow-beating lecture on Critical Race Theory. Most of the above unfolds across a vivid landscape very much in the mold of the recent Raya and the Last Dragon, another story of a fractured world torn apart by prejudice. There are plenty of silly puns, playful jabs at social-media influencers and smart one-liners amid a colorful world, making it enjoyable enough for kids to watch on repeat and absorb the positive messaging.
But it’s essentially prancing to the choir. The kids whose parents are paying attention are likely already being taught tolerance. In broadcasting its anti-bias and pro-inclusivity message so loudly, the kids who could likely stand to benefit the most from this reboot are likely to have their parents scoff the moment that they realize that “controversial” messages like HATE IS BAD are being “forced” on their kids. They’re the same parents whose casual prejudices in the home result in scenes very much like the one that opens A New Generation, who rally against “woke culture run amok” while ironically listening to Rage Against the Machine or fist-pumping at an X-Men movie.
Shame, too. With its positive messaging and characters high on friendship — a hallmark of the Pony world for decades — this is exactly the kind of wholesome, kindness-forward film that can help kids see that bigotry is, in fact, as silly as thinking a smiling unicorn is a threat. In an era when people would rather take horse medicine than embrace lessons in compassion from magical ponies, its message will probably only be heard by those who already agree with it.